Non League Daily

Supporter Ownership: Success on and off the pitch at Merthyr Town

For the Supporters Trust at Merthyr Town the past five years of their ownership have been a very positive experience and for Director Mark Evans success is quantified as both an on-field and off-field matter.

Three promotions have been secured in that period, the latest of which was secured only last weekend as the club returned to the Southern League Premier Division for the first time sinces its liquidation in 2009 and Evans believes that running as a supporter owned club brings Merthyr Town "closer to home".

"We are maybe one of the success stories of Supporters Ownership. We have had success on the field with three promotions in the five years, the other two years we were beaten in the play off final. We now have a 3G pitch and new floodlights, there is a £1.8m redevelopment of our main stand and that is all to do with being a community club.

Because we have a big partnership with our local council we are able to do that. They use us to help deliver community schemes and in return help us to get grants. We are accessing grants that no ordinary club can access because of the way we are set up as a community club and the way we function"

As a football club you are judged on how you perform on the field. But off the field you have to keep moving forward and developing things, I think our supporters take more interest in off the field matters. Things like what is happening in the bar on a Friday night or on the 3G pitch on Sunday afternoon become important to everyone, it's closer to home, that can only be healthy for the club"

Not that it has all been plain sailing for the club from the Welsh Valleys. The actions of the previous regime meant that the supporters entrusted with overseeing the move into supporter ownership had to overcome some "trust issues" and cynicism that they were met with.

However Evans now believes that a careful stance in regards to finances and getting involved in the community means that any doubts have been overcome and hailed their return to the Southern League Premier as "real milestone for us".

"It's six and a bit years since the takeover really because the old chairman left midway through the season. We ran it with the administrator for a year, which was a great learning curve for us. When the club was liquidated the Trust took over and it's been great in the past five years with some success. Last weekend secured out third promotion in those five years and now we are back where we are started, that is a real milestone for us.

There were a lot of trust issues because the old regime racked up debts of hundreds of thousands of pounds. That meant we had to convince people that we were different to that model of sugar daddies and that sort of thing but the supporter owned club is a different way of doing things and we showed that fairly quickly.

We don't spend what we don't have, we don't speculate, we always pay our bills. Every season we have a target to finish in the black and that is our key aim every year. The community appreciates that and the work we do with them, everything in football in Merthyr Town revolves around the football club"

And an honest Evans admitted that those doubts weren't exclusive to the local community, but also lingered in the minds of those supporters preparing to step into the boardroom.

However, just as the commnuity doubts were overcome, so were those of the Supporters Trust and Evans admitted that the confidence grew through a realisation that owning and running a club can be ran as simply as matters closer to home.

"After a while we got confidence in ourselves running the club. We aren't businessmen but if you think about it everyone is a businessman deep down. You run your house, you pay your mortgage and pay your debts, everyone is one really. Just because you are a football supporter doesn't mean you can't run a football club.

We realised that pretty quickly and people were frightened to start with but after that initial period we settled down, people came on board and we have built from there"

Evans also hailed the influence of Supporters Direct on the move into Supporter Ownership, describing their allocated case worker as "exceptional". The organisation have helped and continue to help as growing number of Supporters Trusts, although Evans feels because of the geographical location of Merthyr Town, Supporters Direct and their supporter was crucial.

"Supporters Direct were fundamental to us making it through the process of supporter ownership. We are a little different because we are a Welsh club playing in the English leagues and we have done since 1909. There was that issue of forming under the English FA rules rather than the FAW rules and Supporters Direct helped us overcome that issue.

They were invaluable and our case worker could probably have the freedom of Merthyr Town to be honest, he was exceptional. We are just a small town in the valley but having Supporters Direct alongside us to guide us was crucial. If they hadn't been around we wouldn't have made it, it is as simple as that"

So what of that promotion to the Southern League? A 9-0 hammering of Bishops Cleeve on East weekend helped clinch their elevation to the top tier of the Southern League and it was all played out in front of over 1,500 supporters.

It meant the realisation that the club could return to where they were prior to their liquidation and Evans feels that acheiving that is down to the supporter ownership model.

"It was fantastic. We have lost in the play offs in the last two years so there were a few nerves kicking around. But the way the Easter fixtures worked, with two home fixtures over the weekend, we were confident. There was beautiful weather and we got two big crowds, over 1,000 for the Saturday game and 1,500 for the Monday game.

We have been lucky with our players too as they stuck with us through liquidation and they have been loyal. Both of the managers we have had have understood the supporter ownership model. They don't come to us asking for money we don't have, they know we have to earn it and to be honest the whole supporter ownership model has been a dream come true really"

If their upward tajectory can continue then the dream for the club from the Welsh vallies may be a long way from finishing.

Interview: Mark Carruthers
Photo: Merthyr Town

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